Thursday of the third week of Lent


This is what I commanded my people:
Listen to my voice;
then I will be your God and you shall be my people.
Walk in all the ways that I command you,
so that you may prosper.

Throughout the scriptures we hear God calling his people to repentance. We hear of his tender mercies, his ready forgiveness, and his overwhelming generosity. And we hear of the people’s stony refusal to “walk in all the ways that I command you….”

What is the pious soul to do? Can she turn away from God’s people and appeal to God as an individual divorced from her people, nation and Church? Can she start or join another group that is worthy of the divine covenant?

Christians have often made this choice. Our history if filled with stories of sectarian groups who separated themselves from the body of the church to find another way. They have often denounced even the saints of the past, supposing that none are saved but the few who joined their way in “these latter days.” But these attempts, usually founded on the unsuspected vanity of their founders, inevitably collapse.

More often pious souls enlist with a group within the church: a sodality, third order, or regular order. In the history of the church there are thousands of such groups, and no one knows how many there are today. In these groups they find a kindred spirit to encourage their aspiration to holiness. Very likely, they’ll also find enough foolishness to remind them that sin still abides in every heart. The group, out of its own traditions, will provide guidance, challenge and opportunities for mercy. With God’s blessings they will be a blessing to the Church, communities and nations where they live. They will “Walk in all the ways that I command you” and they will prosper.


Wednesday of the Third Week of Lent


Lake shore trail
Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees
which I am teaching you to observe,
that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land 
which the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. 

The Christian who reflects on Saint Paul’s teachings about the law, faith and justification should first ponder Psalm 119, for instance, before reaching any conclusions about the Law. Psalm 119 is by far the longest of the psalms; and every verse is an expression of profound gratitude for God’s laws, statutes, ordinances, commands, teachings, decrees and so forth. There are more synonyms for the law than you might think possible!
The devout Jew loves the law because God has given it. It is his pride and joy, his delight and comfort, his reassurance and challenge. The law is God’s “rod and staff by which you give me comfort.”
And then the pondering Christian should hear today’s gospel,
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
The Christian who thinks she can step beyond the moral law has submitted to Satan’s rod. The priest who thinks he can disregard even the liturgical laws of the church has wandered into the wonderful land of ego, and his congregation will suffer. I know; I speak from experience.
I’ve learned to ponder the sacraments, the scriptures, and the moral teachings of the church to find the wisdom of God. Even when I disagree with authority it’s better to obey. My own brilliant innovations can only cause pointless confusion. I’m just not that important!
As we navigate this world we’re going to meet a lot of confused, misdirected people who seem freer and happier than we are. They march to different drummers than God ever appointed. Stand back, let them fall, don’t let them take you down with them. Be there when they want to get up again, and be grateful for the wisdom you learned from God. 

Tuesday of the third week of Lent



For your name’s sake, O Lord, do not deliver us up forever,
or make void your covenant.
Do not take away your mercy from us,
for the sake of Abraham, your beloved,
Isaac your servant, and Israel your holy one


Last year I addressed Jesus’ parable of the wicked servant. This link will take you there.

Today’s first reading is Azariah’s song from the furnace, found in the Book of Daniel. You might remember this comical story about Emperor Nebuchadnezzar’s tossing the three young men into the fiery furnace. When they not only survived the ordeal but also sang God’s praises, he repented and believed in God. You don’t have to take this story as historical to understand its import; but, as Hamlet said to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Azariah’s song demonstrates the joyously realistic nature of penance.
o        First of all, It’s about you, God! and not about me. Azariah prays, “do this for your name’s sake.”
Every time we recite the Our Father we say, “Hallowed be thy name!” What we want more than anything else is that God’s name be sung throughout the universe, and that will come on the Day of God’s mercy, justice, beauty and truth.
o        for the sake of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, To whom you promised to multiply their offspring like the stars of heaven, or the sand on the shore of the sea.
Repentance is returning to God’s people. It is a reconciliation of the council of holy ones. I always have to remember I didn’t become a Christian or a Catholic to improve the church, but to be improved by the church. The day I start thinking I am better than anyone in the Church is the day I leave it.
Repentance is also remembering the promises made to our ancestors. By sin I disinherit myself and renounce all hope for salvation.
o        For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation,
brought low everywhere in the world this day
because of our sins.

Azariah speaks frankly of the humiliation of his people. When Christians betray their faith the world pays no attention, but the Church suffers each loss. I know that from reading the anguished letters of parents and grandparents, praying for the return of their children to the Church.
o        We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader,
no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense,
no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you.
But with contrite heart and humble spirit
let us be received….
As he died, Jesus suffered the utter despair of which Azariah speaks. He had nothing to offer but his contrite heart and humbled spirit. I think of that old American hymn, Just as I am….
As we hope for salvation, we offer our sorrowful hearts and humble spirits with him.
o        but deal with us in your kindness and great mercy.
Deliver us by your wonders,
and bring glory to your name, O Lord.”
True repentance must suppress the attitude of entitlement and revive our hope. Profoundly aware of our unworthiness and knowing that God owes us nothing, we hear the good news of his mercy and our souls rise with resurrected hope. 

Monday of the Third Week of Lent

My father,” they said,
“if the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary,
would you not have done it?
All the more now, since he said to you,
‘Wash and be clean,’ should you do as he said.”


Around the VA I hear the military is second only to the church for its elaborate ceremonies. There are inspections, parades, and award ceremonies. There are uniforms, berets, epaulettes and medallions. So I suppose Naaman the Syrian general was looking for some grand gestures when he visited Israel in search of a cure. He expected Elisha to invoke some mighty deity as the skies rumbled and the earth trembled. He was rather disappointed to be told to bathe in the muddy Jordan River. It was below his dignity and, as ceremonies go, underwhelming.


Perhaps our sacraments seem like that to some people. Our great and glorious feast is conducted around a small wafer of bread and the tiniest sip of wine. Where the scriptures speak of aromatic oil flowing luxuriously down upon the head and beard and even to the edge of one’s garment, we dab the slightest smudge of oil. Baptism often requires only a tablespoon of water. In recent years priests have been slightly less parsimonious with our symbols but we are far from excessive.


It is precisely in these tiny gestures we see the glory of God. Pompous efforts to display their magnificent depth only look ridiculous. It is better to approach our prayers quietly and to conduct them in simplicity. Somehow they leave a deeper impression that way.


I once provided a ride to a contemplative sister and accompanied her to a bishop’s ordination. We spoke of it later that evening, on the return trip, but I was thrown into the helter-skelter of business as soon as I got home. When I saw the sister a month later she was still speaking with awe of the ordination. I had never given it a second thought.


To see God’s hand in our world we must slow down, stop, rest a while, take time, and notice the small things. The eyes of faith require imagination. An Indiana Jones movie has been created by imaginative writers who do all the work for their audience, which needs no imagination at all. It should only suspend its instinct for plausibility. The movie must make up in excitement what it lacks in meaning. But a religious ceremony, especially a sacrament, requires a deep entering into the moment, and a willingness to be drawn into a slow eddy of meditation.


With our practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving during Lent and Holy Week, we prepare to see the resurrection of Jesus. It is there for those who have eyes.






Third Sunday of Lent


White-throated Sparrow

Oh, that today you would hear his voice:
“Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as in the day of Massah in the desert,
Where your fathers tempted me;
they tested me though they had seen my works.”

The story of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman evokes the ancient tradition begun by Hosea. The woman is the beloved people; the man is God. It is a story of tender mercy, outrageous betrayal, jealous wrath, and gracious reconciliation. Hosea, Isaiah, Ezekiel, the psalmists, and the author of the Song of Songs develop the theme in the Old Testament; Saint Paul and Saint John of Patmos celebrate it in the New. The author of Saint John’s Gospel has a special genius for investing what appears to be an ordinary event, a chance meeting where women often gather, with extraordinary depth. No sooner do we hear:
Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well.
It was about
noon.
A woman of Samaria came to draw water…
than we should recall Moses’ meeting his future wife Zipporah at a well (Exodus 2: 15-22), and Jacob’s bold greeting of Rachel (Genesis 29: 9-12). This is no chance encounter; it is the fulfillment of long expectation.
But first, let’s flirt:
“Woman, give me a drink!”
“Since when do Jewish men ask Samaritan women for water?”
“I can give you living water!”
“You have no bucket! What makes you so special?”
“I can give you such water that you’ll never thirst again!”
“Then give me some!”
“Go call your husband.”
“I have no husband.”
Yeah, right. It’s getting downright steamy here. Better back off a bit.
“You’ve had five husbands, not counting your latest lover.”
“Yipes, the man’s a prophet. Alright, Buster, you want to quarrel? Let’s quarrel: you people think you’re so special in Jerusalem, but we have kept the faith on this holy mountain!”
“The hour is coming when we will worship together in the Spirit.”
“I know that hour will come. We Samaritans also hope for the Messiah!”
“I am he.”
Saint John says, “at that moment” the disciples arrived with food. But how long did that consummate moment last? It is an epiphany, a moment of divine revelation when Jesus says what he has said to no other person. He is in fact her seventh man, her long awaited husband.  
You have to notice she leaves her bucket at the well and Jesus is no longer hungry. Their conversation has meandered from flirtation to quarrel to romance and ecstatic union. Both have been deeply satisfied by their conversation.
They have found within themselves that water, of which he later speaks:
"Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: 'Rivers of living water will flow from within him.' (John 7: 37-38)
Rivers flow from the Samaritan woman as she becomes his first missionary. She runs back to the village to tell her people about Jesus and they rush up the hill to meet him.
Lent invites us to remember the intense longing we feel for the Messiah. The problems in Libya and the mid-east, the ongoing tragedy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the tsunami of woes that has swept over Japan are not going to be solved by human ingenuity. Rather, we must be swept up and into the flow of living water which Jesus provides. We thirst for the Seventh Man. 


I've written a poem in heroic couplets about the Woman at the Well. You might enjoy it: Mysterium tremendum et fascinans 

Saturday of the Second Week of Lent


Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt
and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance;
Who does not persist in anger forever,
but delights rather in clemency,
And will again have compassion on us,
treading underfoot our guilt?

Christians live within a paradox. It contains so much tension it might be called a crucible, an unbearable situation. God has called us to live an ideal that God knows is possible and realistic. But we continually find it impossible and we habitually fail to live up to it. God challenges us repeatedly, but his warnings seem only to weigh us down with paralyzing guilt. 
His revelation shows us the consequences of sin and we are appalled. Not only are men and woman and children neglected, wasted and killed; not only is our living environment trashed, not only do we live with a constant burden of guilt and the unwholesome stench of sin, but we discover too late that we have crucified the only one who could save us.  
That really should be the end of it. Deicide, to any rational soul, must be the final, irreversible, unforgivable, and irredeemable act. There can be no turning back from that decision.
And yet, by Jesus’ resurrection, God proves again his infinite love for us. To contemplate this story is to stand on the edge of a bottomless abyss calling, “Who is there like you?”
It is to stand with one’s back to the abyss, calling to an uncomprehending world saying, “Please, listen to this. I have seen this. I know this. There is still time!”
More – it is to know that we can live the ideal life God has given us, and we must. There can be no compromise with the way of perfection. 

Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord


“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”

During the Mass the priest breaks the consecrated bread into smaller pieces as the congregation recites the “Lamb of God.” And then he should pause for a moment of silent prayer. During this very personal moment he may say one of two prayers. I have always preferred the first. Here is the new translation for that prayer:  
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God,
Who by the will of the Father
And the work of the Holy Spirit,
Through your Death gave life to the world;
Free me by this, your most holy Body and Blood,
From all my sins and from every evil;
Keep me always faithful to your commandments,
And never let me be parted from you.
This wonderful prayer certainly expresses my own earnest desire for purity of heart, fidelity of spirit and eternal life.
But, I confess, for more than half my life I have added another phrase to the prayer:  
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God,
Who by the will of the Father
And the work of the Holy Spirit,
Through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
Through your death gave life to the world;
Free me by this, your most holy body and blood,
From all my sins and from every evil;
Keep me always faithful to your commandments,
And never let me be parted from you.

Saint Maximilian Kolbe understood Mary as that sinless, most blessed and worthy woman whom God could not refuse when she prayed for the Messiah. Her prayers represent the prayers of her own Jewish people, of all human beings, of every earthly creature and of the entire universe groaning for redemption. After centuries of cultivation in the Garden of Abraham and Sarah, the Lord brought forth a woman of complete innocence, deep wisdom, and absolute fidelity. Obediently conforming to the zephyrs, gales and gusts of the Spirit, she knew what God wanted and what every human longs for. Daily she prayed that God would fulfill his promise to her beloved Jewish people.

And God heard her prayer; and the Word was made flesh.

Mary is not separated from us by her purity; rather, she is bound to us by the spirit that draws us together in purity of heart. She prays for us and with us as we pray in God’s Spirit, which is the Spirit of Jesus and her spirit. Pope John Paul rightly called her the Daughter of God the Father, the Mother of God the Son, and the Spouse of the Holy Spirit. Whatever God wants is what Mary wants; and, it follows, whatever Mary wants God wants. The Spirit that moves each of them is the Same.
I see a duck and drake flying together, watching one another, deciding without words where to fly and when to land. Each knows what the other wants and neither leads nor follows. This is the unity that a married man and woman strive for. After a lifetime of devotion, sacrifice, discussion, disagreement, compromise, decision and prayer their separate wills become one sanctified covenant. Even when separated by distance or death, they think and decide alike. So does Mary move with God; they are of one will. 
 
On this Feast of the Annunciation, nine months before Christmas, we celebrate God’s choice of Mary. By the “immaculating grace” He gave at her conception, now come to ripeness in the young woman, He found her worthy to be the Mother of God.  

Thursday of the Second Week of Lent


Franciscan Coat of Arms
over the old school building
at Mt St Francis

Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings,
who seeks his strength in flesh,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.

Here’s an irony for you: the one who trusts no one, thinking he can rely only on himself; and amasses a huge fortune to protect himself from poverty is actually putting all his stock in other human beings. 
Money is worth only what people say its worth; it is an entirely human invention and is worth nothing in God’s sight. So here’s a fellow who spends his life piling up lucre only to have the rug pulled out when a recession sweeps across the land.
Of course he might decide he’s especially clever and invest in gold, or real estate or tulips. But none of that matters; he still depends entirely on other people to assess his worth.
Eventually he must discover they think nothing of him or his money and his worth is precisely nothing. The miser finds himself as lonely as Scrooge on Christmas Eve, shut out of family, friends and neighbors. Real people invest in one another. 

My mother had a remarkable saying when I was a kid. (It’s amazing how wise that young woman was.) When our bald tires went flat, or the car blew its final backfire, she would say, “It’s only money. Easy come, easy go.”
My parents pinched every penny till it squealed. We bought bread from the day-old store, mixed whole milk with powdered milk, drank generic cool aid with saccharine and canned anything that could fit into a mason jar.
There were days in 1950 and ‘51 when they didn’t know where next week’s meals would come from. The money never came easy and it didn’t go easy, but we always had God to get us through. As the psalmist tells us today:
Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose hope is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted beside the waters
that stretches out its roots to the stream….

As we celebrate this Season of Lent we look at our own finances once again. Are we settled too comfortably? Does our charitable giving put our financial security at risk? If not, why not? Do we still need God to manage the future? Or do we trust in other people to assess our worth? 

P.S
You might enjoy last year's reflection on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It's still online at http://kenbartsch-homily.blogspot.com/2010/03/thursday-of-second-week-of-lent.html

Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent


Creek in Iroquois Park

Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?”
They said to him, “We can.”
He replied, “My chalice you will indeed drink….”

People often dispute over which religion is the best. In defense of Christianity I would ask, “Which religion promises disappointment, failure and persecution to its most faithful adherents?” That might cause the Christian side of the argument to withdraw into thoughtful silence. Is that what I want from my religion? Clearly the sons of Zebedee and their importunate mother had something else in mind. Nor had Jeremiah volunteered for the heartbreak he found in service to the Lord.
Athletes and soldiers train for struggle and hardship. They expect the approaching contest to test their capabilities even to the limits of endurance. But they also expect to win. Christians don’t. We train with the same resolve knowing there will be no victory worthy of the name before the Kingdom of God appears.
There will, of course, be satisfactions along the way. Our good God will provide them as he knows we need them. Human beings, we cannot survive without food, drink, breath, rest, friendship, love and occasional pleasure. When pleasure comes from our God we should not spurn it. But we don’t live for pleasure; our only deep satisfaction is doing God’s will.
Lent offers the opportunity to reexamine our attitudes about life and faith. What do I want? What do I  expect? Today’s scriptures challenge our natural preference for ease and comfort in this world. They remind us:
Bridge in Iroquois Park
…my trust is in you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
In your hands is my destiny; rescue me

from the clutches of my enemies and my persecutors.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent


Original painting in the
Blessed Sacrament Chapel
at Robley Rex VA Hospital
Louisville, Ky

Hear the word of the Lord,
princes of Sodom!
Listen to the instruction of our God,
people of Gomorrah!

Lest there be any confusion, we should understand that Sodom and Gomorrah had been obliterated more than a thousand years before Isaiah’s prophecy. He is speaking of the leaders of Jerusalem whom he insults with this jibe. He considers them no better than the vicious pagans who were destroyed at the time of Abraham.
But, he is telling them and us, ”There is still time!” The prophet pleads with his people to wash yourselves clean and put away your misdeeds. Sometimes we think it’s too late to change our ways. We seem to be hardened in our ways: 
  • I smoke; I’ve tried to quit; I can’t do it. 
  • I am impatient; I cannot control my anger. 
  • I can’t control my eating, 
  • I can’t control my gambling, 
  • I can’t control my lusting, 
  • I can’t control my shopping, 
  • I can’t control my arguing, and so forth....


Or worse, I will try again. When someone says he will try to quit drinking or smoking, or try to control his temper, or try to get out of an adulterous relationship, you can bet he won’t quit. He has no intention of quitting, nor does he believe it possible. He only promises to try.
Trying to do something begins with my own will. But when it comes to an entrenched habit, the will is too sick to do anything. And yet it denies that sickness in order to avoid the very steps which seem even worse: surrender and obedience.

Jesus insists we must die to ourselves if we would be his disciples. We cannot follow him and bring along the baggage of willfulness. Rather we must be willing. They are polar opposites in the spiritual life of a Christian. (An excellent book on this subject: Gerald G May, Will and Spirit, a contemplative psychology)

Don’t try. Just do it – in obedience to the Lord.

Jesus ran head on into that same willfulness among the leaders of his time:
…they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They “talk the talk but they do not walk the walk.” It is so difficult to realize the difference between talking and walking, between willful and willing. We must pray daily for a willing spirit, begging God to take our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh; and then we must seize those graceful opportunities to change our hearts that will suddenly, unexpectedly appear.

Monday of the Second Week of Lent 2011


We have sinned, been wicked and done evil;
we have rebelled and departed from your commandments and your laws.
We have not obeyed your servants the prophets,
who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes,
our fathers, and all the people of the land.
Justice, O Lord, is on your side;
we are shamefaced even to this day….

Recommending the Sacrament of Penance to a group of young people recently, I told them, “This sacrament, like the other six, is a very great mystery. We have to talk about it, and yet we cannot explain it. I don’t think any words could persuade a skeptic to enter the sacrament. It is something we have to do, and do repeatedly, to appreciate.”
Penance is a great privilege that God has given to his people. It begins not with the awareness of sin but with the awareness of blessing, or grace.
Grace has many meanings and it seems they all apply. Grace is freely given, the word means free. It is graceful and bestows gracefulness upon our awkwardness. Under the tutelage of grace I learn to think, speak and act both gracefully and graciously. I flow with the air around me and the fluids within me. This is the kind of movement the martial arts pursue, to be one with motion and one with the earth beneath my feet. If it is amazing to watch it is even more wonderful to experience within oneself.
Grace understands the time of which Qoheleth speaks. There is a time for everything under heaven, and the wise person senses the time and goes with it.
Sin, then, is that awkwardness that doesn’t know the time. It cracks jokes while people weep, and provokes when it’s time to conciliate.
Sin cannot imagine freedom; it hoards during times of scarcity and plenty. It thinks only of itself and cannot see beyond its own needs.

Penance is that insight that says, “What was I thinking?” It is dismayed by the enormity of sin’s stupidity, which the Bible calls foolishness. If sin is stumbling blindly in a crowded room, stepping on unseen toes, elbowing unseen chests and gouging unseen eyes penance is watching the lights come up to reveal a trail of hurting, angry people.
But penance is also the joy of apologizing, making amends, and changing one’s ways. It is discovering the grace that floods into one’s being and connects with the hurts, hopes, and expectations of others. It is discovering I am not alone.
Finally it is acknowledging, “Justice, O Lord, is on your side.” I have no claim on God. I deserve nothing except punishment. But I want with all my heart to sing God’s praises for God is good, all good, supreme good. 

Second Sunday of Lent 2011

… he was transfigured before them; 
his face shone like the sun 
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.


No one saw the resurrection of Jesus. The disciples had fled; the soldiers were sleeping; and besides, no one expected anything to happen. Saint Matthew says the women saw an angel descending to roll the stone away from the tomb, but the tomb appears to be empty already.
When artists describe the resurrection they turn to Jesus’ transfiguration. This is where we find his face shining like the sun and his clothes dazzling white. Already, before his passion and death, Jesus gave his disciples a mystery to ponder in preparation for that day.
When they witness the full horror of the crucifixion – the humiliation and torture of their beloved master, his naked wretchedness, the gore and blood, his cry of despair, and the utter contempt of his enemies – they will need the memory of Mount Tabor.
But even at that moment they were not sufficiently overwhelmed with the glory of Jesus. Peter would exclaim,
“Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here, 
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah
.”
Perhaps he was thinking of God’s appearance in Genesis 18, when the Lord appeared as three men to Abraham and Sarah. Perhaps he thought he should imitate the hospitality of the Patriarch. But Peter was too eager to take charge of the situation. In reply he heard,
This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him.”

With that he collapsed into terrified silence. Perhaps he also heard the unspoken command, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”
As we prepare for Easter we should contemplate the mystery of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We want this signal event to change our lives utterly. As W. B. Yeats wrote,
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
When we have integrated this historical event fully into our lives, nothing will be the same for us. Jesus Christ is the beginning of everything we do, and the aim of every endeavor. Our work and play, family life, friendships, and acquaintances, our sexual, religious, political, economic, social and intellectual lives, our eating, sleeping and breathing are all oriented by the cross.
The word orientation comes from the word Latin word for east. Traditionally our churches are built facing east, with the altar against the east wall, beneath the cross. As we gather each Sunday we face the east, the cross and resurrection, allowing these sacred mysteries to reorient, realign – or true -- everything in our lives.  

Solemnity of Saint Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary


He believed, hoping against hope,
that he would become the father of many nations,
according to what was said, Thus shall your descendants be.
That is why it was credited to him as righteousness.

The above passage from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and today’s second reading, is about the Patriarch Abraham. In this important epistle, Saint Paul insists that God credits righteousness to us because of our faith, rather than our works. The works include both pious observance and charitable deeds. These good works are beautiful and good and somehow necessary, but only the God who observes the heart knows their worth. Therefore, we are judged not by our works but by our faith.
Though he is speaking of the Abraham our father in faith, the liturgy suggests we reflect on them as we celebrate Joseph the husband of Mary. Catholics speak of him as “the foster father of Jesus” to honor Mary’s virginity, but he is also Jesus’ true father in a spiritual way. He is that righteous man who observed the law, acting as he did because he was driven by the love of God, devotion to his wife and fidelity to his child.
Saint Matthew begins his gospel tracing Jesus’ lineage from Abraham to Joseph. Joseph is, in a sense, the Abraham of the New Testament;” he carries the tradition of faith into this new chapter in Salvation History, especially as we find him in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.
The Letter to the Hebrews recalls Abraham’s hoping against hope… Joseph’s situation seems every bit as hopeless as that of Abraham. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, he leapt out of bed, roused his wife who grabbed the baby, and the three of them fled to Egypt. In doing so Joseph abandoned his career, family, and homeland; just as Abraham had left everything to inherit the Promised Land. Neither man would see the final destiny: Abraham died centuries before King David claimed the land for his kingdom; Joseph disappeared from the New Testament long before Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Hebrews says of Abraham:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go.
By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise;
for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God.
By faith he received power to generate, even though he was past the normal age--and Sarah herself was sterile--for he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy.
So it was that there came forth from one man, himself as good as dead, descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sands on the seashore.

Like Abraham, we imagine Joseph as an old man, “past the normal age” of having children. Like “our father in faith” he is the “father of the Church” because he was the father of Jesus, and thereby the father of “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sands on the seashore.
Joseph, the quiet man whose voice is never heard in the Bible, still inspires us to look for that city with foundations whose architect and maker is God. 

Friday of the First Week of Lent 2011


Trash strewn by a bridge
in Iroquois Park
after the recent flood. 

But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment,
and whoever says to his brother, Raqa, 
will be answerable to the Sanhedrin,
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.

Recently, I finished Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life  by Marshall B Rosenberg, Ph.D. Dr Rosenberg has dedicated his life to helping people recognize and appreciate the confrontation that is often laced into our address to others. With his writings and workshops he teaches more effective, less violent ways of signaling our needs, appreciating the needs of others, and addressing them.
Jesus gives us a similar lesson, perhaps more bluntly, in today’s gospel. His method is to accentuate the violence of words like Raqa and you fool with a more violent, apparently disproportionate, response. Is calling someone a fool really that bad?
Yes, it is that bad. Words have a way of clinging to people like flypaper in an old fashioned burlesque routine. The more we try to shake them off, the more they cling. The more they cling the more they hurt, and the hurt inevitably spills onto others as the violence flows from one victim to another.
Speaking for myself I remember insulting and untrue remarks that were made about my intelligence fifty years ago. I didn’t know they were not true; I didn’t know they were not intended to be taken seriously. I was astonished a few years ago when a psychologist administered an intelligence test and gave me the results. I had no idea….

Many victims report the verbal abuse hurts more than the physical punishment. An insulting word sinks into consciousness like the broken tip of a barbed shaft, working its way deeper into the flesh until it finds vital organs and fatally penetrates them.

It takes more courage, cleverness, foresight, imagination and grace to honor the Godlikeness of every person. In difficult circumstances, when I am disappointed or conflicted, I have to be calm within myself; committed to speaking with charity and clarity; prepared to hear another point of view, respectful of the person before me, and reverent toward my own personhood. I must, as the Prayer of Saint Francis teaches, seek not so much to be understood as to understand.

All too often we have engaged in conversation not to discover the mystery and beauty of the other human being as to reveal “the truth” that other (apparently) does not see. But the truth does not appear amid violent conversations. It withdraws and hides, terrified.
T.S. Eliot concludes his poem, Preludes with:
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling,
The notion of some infinitely gentle,
Infinitely suffering thing.

During Lent we pray that we might be found worthy at Easter to see and hear and know the infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering mercy of God.